When David Schwimmer walked into the beloved neighborhood restaurant at the corner at Bedford Street and Grove Street and sat down in the sidewalk-facing window, he ignored warnings that this may not be the best place for him to dine. Perhaps the absence of Gunther brewing coffee behind the counter or Monica, Phoebe, and Rachel chatting on an orange couch helped the New York City-based actor, who played Ross on Friends for 10 consecutive seasons, forget he was seated at one of the city's most famous intersections.
But when the tourists started pouring in, as they do every single day, selfie sticks and DSLR lenses in tow, to snap pictures of perhaps the world’s most famous fire escape — the one shown as the Friends theme song plays at the beginning of every episode — the actor who spent a decade portraying America’s favorite fictional paleontologist flipped the brim of his hat down and moved to a more discreet table. It was a total Ross move.
While Central Perk exists solely on a Los Angeles soundstage, the space that would house the corner-side café below the building where Monica, Rachel, Chandler, and Joey lived is very much real.
The Little Owl opened in May 2006, just two years after one of the most popular television serious of all time aired its finale. Chef Joey Campanero (not Tribbiani) had walked by the corner one night with his ex-wife, who thought the charming spot would be a great place to open a neighborhood restaurant. This was before Google Maps indicated the “Friends Building” stood at the exact same corner.
Oblivious to Central Perk’s fictional reign, Campanero pitched his business plan to investors as a “bohemian social club,” not unlike the daily hangout of the Friends characters. The former Universal Studios corporate chef, who had recently broken into the New York City restaurant scene, signed a lease at 90 Bedford St. still not knowing about the fame associated with his future restaurant’s location. Another landmark, one of the oldest wooden houses in Manhattan, directly across the street, truly drew Campanero to this special space, which is named for the faux owls owners of wood homes would place outside to ward off woodpeckers. Still, even after learning that passersby may expect The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” to blare out of the restaurant’s speakers, Campanero wasn’t about to start painting the Central Perk logo on his window.
“The majority [of tourists] are disappointed that this is not Central Perk,” Campanero told me over lunch (pork enchiladas in salsa verde for him, a porgy fillet with lobster paella for me, an order of his grandmother’s baked eggplant parm to split — this Joey evidently does share food) at his neighborhood café on a sunny fall afternoon. Outside, a group of tourists had formed a mass on the opposite corner, trying to capture the street signs and Friends fire escape for, probably, social media. “They expect it to have a big orange sofa and big coffee cups and that they can buy a coffee for a dollar. The reality is that that won’t pay the bills.”
The Friends characters seemed oblivious to the burdens of New York City rent, though Little Owl found a way to appease Central Perk seekers – white mugs printed with an illustration of the building’s exterior are sold for $15, with coffee, for customers waxing nostalgic for the fictional café. Unlike the soundstage Central Perk lived on, the functioning Little Owl has no central couch or comfortable lounge area (save for a ladder-accessible elevated seating area aspiring diners without reservations can perch on and wait for a table), but rather a cluster of dark wooden tables and matching chairs. Dark banquettes line the interior walls and the entire space is illuminated by sunlight on a nice day. At some point in the past decade, the Little Owl staff used to tell a myth about finding an old Central Perk espresso machine and grounds in the basement, but gave up the lore to focus on the spot’s actual identity.
Similar to the “real” Central Perk, however, the Little Owl is primarily a neighborhood hangout. Many locals eat anywhere from one to four or more meals per week in the minimally decorated space, which has photos of staff members’ family on a wall near the bar, adding to the neighborly feel. "We treat our neighbors like celebrities and celebrities like our neighbors," Campanero said. "Guests don’t come here to drink martinis, it’s not a power lunch place, it’s an idyllic neighborhood restaurant." Part of the Little Owl’s brand is not selling out names of celebrities dining in their restaurant to tabloids, giving famous faces the anonymity they desire. But it’s not unlikely diners will spot Friends supporting actors in the one-room restaurant.
Now, the Little Owl is considering launching weekday breakfasts, following demands from guests who love their weekend brunches and want to enjoy them all week long. “We’re not in the business of saying no,” Campanero said, though a launch date has not been set. And while it seemed unrealistic that the six central Friends characters would meet for breakfast on a daily basis, that is once again a reality for many resident of Greenwich Village: Remote workers, entrepreneurs, and transponsters (OK, maybe not that last one) all work flexible schedules that allow for some pancakes outside of the home office before the work day begins.
At its essence, the Little Owl embodies the spirit of Central Perk: Anyone and everyone can visit, scarf down a bowl of seafood gumbo or linger over a New York strip, and feel at home. “Your mom and Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Spielberg all feel welcome here. In the true sense of hospitality, our doors are open. We don’t look for trends, we basically create them.”